Friday, March 15, 2013

All Hail to the Chief

When I was 11 years old, we moved into a new house and got a dog who loved to run around the new house with a toothbrush in his mouth.  That was also the year that the Chief came to live with us.
Our brand new house was on a windy road in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, amidst grand country French homes, wrought iron fences, sparkling swimming pools, Koi ponds, and perfectly manicured lawns.  My parents built our new home from the ground up, pouring carefully over floor plans, measuring out furniture on blueprints, collaborating with contractors.  This was their dream home.

We moved in on the day that my sister and I returned home from overnight camp. Within two hours, we went from bunking in a log cabin in the Poconos full of mice and mildew to a brand new Main Line home full of possibilities.  There would be touch football games, tennis matches, softball, roller hockey in the driveway, barbecuing on the deck, playing in the snow, roasting marsh-mellows in my parents’ bedroom fireplace, screaming contests at the dinner table, blasting music on the vintage jukebox, singing karaoke, baking daddy cookies in the pale pink kitchen.

The windows in my bright bedroom overlooked the backyard, wooden deck, green grass, and tennis court beyond.  “How ‘bout we build a zip line out your bedroom window straight down to the tennis court?” my dad asked, with a twinkle in his eye.  My dad had the best ideas and I often wondered if he was really a ten year old boy stuck in a dad’s body.  He was as excited about this new house that he had worked so hard to build, as a little boy would be about a new tree house.

It looked like a suburban dream.  And, for my family, it was. 

“Do you guys want to paint the rock?” my dad asked the week after we moved in.  The "rock" was a gigantic boulder, roughly the size of a Prius, that stood just beyond the wooden deck in the backyard.

Between the two of us, my sister, Alissa, was the “artist.”  She had perfected her two signature drawings; one, the hind quarters of an elephant, and two, the face of a dog with long droopy ears and freckles, by the time she was eight.  (I was never much of an artist, save for the time I created an abstract masterpiece when I colored off the pages of my coloring book and right up my bedroom wall).

“Dad, paint it, like how?” my sister asked, rolling her eyes.  At 14, Alissa was way too cool for craft projects, let alone outdoor craft projects in the late August humidity.

“However you want,” my dad replied, “be creative.”

An hour later, after a trip to the paint store, my sister and I went out back with brushes and paints in hand and a master plan.  We decided to doodle on the boulder precisely the same crap that we had doodled all over the lined pages of our school notebooks for years.  First, our initials: “SH,” “AH,” “SBH,” “AMH” (my sister decided to give herself the middle name “Miranda” at this stage in her life because my parents had never given her one).  Then we added our flowery signatures that we were constantly revising for the eventual stardom that awaited us.  Next we scrawled: “Benetton, Ton Sur Ton, Guess Jeans.”  I painted my signature “snoopy on top of doghouse,” (which slightly resembled “snoopy on top of embalming table at morgue.”  My sister topped it off with her piece de resistance: “Alissa Rules.”

We were creative geniuses.

“WHAT are you girls doing?” my dad asked, slightly horrified by the sight of the boulder.  We smiled as proudly as Michelangelo must have.

“Dad, do you like it?”  I asked.

“I thought you were going to paint . . . I don’t know, a mural or something . . .”

“This IS a mural!” Alissa retorted, tossing her wooden paintbrush in the bucket with a clank.

There was no use arguing, so my dad didn’t bother.  I’m sure he prayed for a monsoon to sweep through Bryn Mawr and wash away intense coats of “Benetton” and “Alissa Rules” and all of our other artistic nonsense.

The monsoon never came and our masterpiece remained for years.  But, my dad believed that if anyone could turn around the energy (or lack thereof) of our otherwise gorgeous backyard, surely a shaman could.  You see, not only was my dad a big kid at heart, he believed he was a Native American reincarnated. 

“Ten men are coming tomorrow to deliver the Chief!” my dad announced one day upon his return from a business trip to North Carolina. 

“Wha-?” my mom nearly coughed out some chicken salad.

“I bought a Native American chief, for the backyard, it’s spectacular.  10 feet tall wooden sculpture,” he explained as nonchalantly as if he had purchased a new perennial for the garden.

“Where do you think it’s going to go?” my mom asked, skeptically.

“Right out there, by the rock.”  

Of course.  

He was so confident it was as if the spirits had spoken to him in a dream. “He’ll watch over the house,” my dad continued, without a hint of jest.  “And besides, I think the backyard could use a little fang-ship.”

“You mean, “FENG SHUI?” my mom responded, carefully enough for a five year old to get the correction.

“Oh, you know what I mean!”

The Native gods must have been crazy because sure enough a flat-bed truck rolled up several days later and out came the Chief.  Just like my dad promised (or threatened), it took ten beefy men to carry him from the truck to his perch in the backyard and prop him upright.  It was a feat of mankind.  My dad was so overjoyed I thought he might put on a headdress, torch up a joint, and beat a drum.

He was the only resident of the Main Line with a 10 foot hand-carved Native American chief in his backyard.  That was for sure.

And then, the monsoon hit.  (Well, it was a terrible rainstorm with damaging 50 mph winds.  Might as well have been a monsoon).  

“I was up all night, thinking about the Chief,” my dad revealed as he strolled into the pale pink kitchen in his signature Cole Haan loafers and button down shirt.  “I thought the wind might knock him down, but look!” he said, pointing out the kitchen window, “He’s as strong as an ox.”  Alissa and I giggled.
“I’m going to order a plaque for him,” my dad continued.  “His name came to me in my dream last night.”

“I thought you said you were up all night?” my sister chided.

“Yeah, Dad, how could you have been dream-?

“I had a vision, okay?  A vision.  Wow, you two are like little lawyers!”

“So, Mr. Heenan, you say you had a vision, last night, the night of - ?” Alissa continued, in her best prosecutorial tone.

“His name is Chief Strong Winds, Wisdom Within,” my dad declared.

“Dad, you might want to check yourself into the nearest psych ward.”

“I’m serious, doll!  That’s his name.”

“No more questions,” my sister chuckled, rolling her blue eyes three quarters of the way back into her head.

So, he got the plaque, hammered on to the Chief’s base and, next thing you know, “Chief Strong Winds, Wisdom Within,” became a veritable tourist attraction.  Or at least a neighborhood attraction.  Friends and family wanted their photo taken with the Chief, much the way tourists enjoy posing with goofy guys dressed like gladiators in front of The Colosseum.

The Chief has survived some 27 years since then.  He has made multiple moves, suffered a minor foot injury, overseen the birth of five little boys, and has even made it to "show and tell" for my son's unit on Native Americans at Thanksgiving time. (I had to explain to his teachers that yes, the Chief really does live in my parents' backyard and not in some protected national space in North Dakota).

How one man could bring so many people and generations together is beyond me. Of course, it's not the Chief I'm referring to; it's the man with the vision, heart, and soul.  The man who infuses spirit into everything he does. The Chief's chief.

Love you, Dad.